Researching Early Modern History

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Research blog entry 7 – T.D. Jacobs

While researching and preparing for my class next year on Early Modern English political and diplomatic culture, I’ve come to focus lately on electronic sources. Students will have to be able to access primary source collections or databases online, given that they are not expected to do on-site archival research outside of the country for a second year bachelor class. Despite the reluctance of some historians to embrace digital sources (or to cite them), these resources are a necessity for many. In order to help my students, I am compiling a list of electronic collections and databases that they may find useful. There are many, and they often cover a wide variety of subject matter.

However, access to archives online is more problematic. Some portals are easier to use than others, while there are many that are simply hard to access at all because of poor design. Spain’s Archivo General de Simancas is the best in terms of ease of use, in my opinion, and content is added automatically following requests for digital copies. Portugal’s Torre do Tombo, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to access at all due to issues on the archive’s main website. The Medici Archive Project is, by far and away, the most interesting to use in terms of its innovate integrated communications platform and personal accounts. Students of English history face a different hurdle: cost.

The website of the National Archives at Kew has a searchable database, but the actual content is generally unavailable. You can usually find a description of the document in question, but images are few and far between. It is possible to order a record, but the costs can be prohibitive – especially when you are trying to access an entire series. As for ease of access, it is difficult to narrow in on particular dates using the search engine. In terms of my own research, I find it much easier to consult the ‘calendars’ first. These are constructed series summaries (sometimes actual transcripts) that were published during the age of national source publications that brought us such giants as Gachard. I say constructed because the calendars are not always reflective of the structure of the archives. For example, the ‘Calendar of State Papers – Venetian’ does not refer to an actual archive in the UK. Rather, it contains summaries and translations of documents located elsewhere, placed in chronological order. These can be accessed and searched at British History Online – if you are willing to pay. It isn’t really exorbitant in terms of pricing, but to an undergraduate it may be daunting.

The calendars have their limitations, however. They are not always complete, and they are not linked in any way to archival inventories. In other words, you cannot use the calendars as perfect substitute for the original documents, or as a real finding aid. Until now. Gale Cengage Learning recently launched State Papers Online, 1509-1714. This massive project has linked calendar entries to high quality scans of the original documents, via a searchable interface. The second part, covering the eighteenth century, currently is currently under construction. The project is being hailed as a major leap forward for early modernists working in all fields. And I am sure that is true. For those that can afford it. There is, at least at this time, no individual access available. Rather, they are only offering institutional subscriptions, and they are prohibitively expensive. A 2016 quote to the University of Glasgow for access to the first half of the project was in excess of £ 200,000. Scholars – even scholars working at major universities in the UK – are being forced to travel to the Nationals Archives or the British Library to access the database. I will be doing so myself next month. However, I can hardly demand that my students do so.

I greatly appreciate such innovative projects. However, I am sceptical about any claims they may make regarding the democratization of science. The documents have been made easier to access, but only for people who could have accessed them to start with. Namely, those who could afford to go to London to do their research in any case. No doubt this will greatly speed up the process, thus lowering the costs of food and lodging, but it does nothing to mitigate other expenses associated with such research stays. Not to mention planning costs, and the difficulties in scheduling such trips when you need to teach at the same time.

While I look forward to using State Papers Online, I am ambivalent about promoting projects that further concentrate information access among academic elites. Especially when I take into consideration publishing demands, where metric evaluations are putting increasing pressure on historians to publish their research in a very small selection of journals, to which not everyone has access because of costs. Meanwhile, funding – determined to a large degree by those very same metrics – is becoming more difficult to obtain. The entirety of scientific investigation, from access to institutional support, sources, and the end product, is – I sometimes fear – becoming less democratic, not more so, despite the aspirations of the Digital Humanities.


 Archivo General de Simancas

Arquivo Nacional Torre do Tombo

British History Online 

Graham, Suzanne R. “Historians and Electronic Resources: Patterns and Use.” Journal of the Association for History and Computing 5, no. 2 (2002).

Prescott, Andrew. “What Price Gale Cengage?” Digital Riffs. Blog entry 15.07.2016.

State Papers Online 

The British Library 

The Medici Archive Project

The National Archives at Kew


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